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Biden criticizes GOP-led efforts to ban books

Books with LGBTQ themes disproportionately targeted by bans

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President Joe Biden at the Rose Garden of the White House (Screen shot/Independent UK)

President Joe Biden criticized elected Republican officials for the increasingly widespread practice of banning books from America’s schools and libraries in prepared remarks delivered from the White House on Monday.

Addressing an audience gathered in the Rose Garden for the Council of Chief State School Officers’ Teachers of the Year event, the president said, “Empty shelves don’t help kids learn very much,” adding, “I’ve never met a parent who wants a politician dictating what their kid can learn, and what they can think, or who they can be.”

By framing these policies as government overreach, Biden co-opted and repurposed the “parental rights” language commonly used by conservatives advocating for book bans.

For example, right-wing activists often argue that requiring schools and libraries to allow interested parties to review the materials made available to minors and lodge complaints with anything they may find objectionable rightfully restores the rights of parents to exercise more control over how their children are educated.

According to PEN America, however, the first half of the 2022-2023 school year has seen at least 1,477 attempts to ban 874 individual book titles, disproportionately targeting materials that include LGBTQ characters or themes or those that address issues of racial justice.

Explicitly targeting these materials for censorship are elected officials like Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and his conservative allies in the state legislature, who last week expanded the controversial “Don’t Say Gay” law (officially known as the Parental Rights in Education Act), which Biden has called “hateful.”

Critics have long argued the law, which will now cover all grade levels in Florida’s public schools, uses overly broad language with the specter of many different enforcement mechanisms to create a chilling effect designed to discourage teachers and staff from offering affirming messages to LGBTQ students or from serving openly if they themselves are LGBTQ.

“By opening the door to arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement against speech that favors or promotes the inclusion and acceptance of LGBTQ+ individuals,” the American Bar Association wrote, “the law arguably runs afoul of the First Amendment’s stringent prohibition on viewpoint discrimination and imposes an unconstitutional chilling effect on disfavored speech.”

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The White House

Biden hosts biggest-ever Pride month event at the White House

More than 1,000 guests welcomed to celebration on the South Lawn

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President Joe Biden at the White House June 2023 Pride Month reception (Washington Blade photo by Christopher Kane)

President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden on Saturday welcomed more than 1,000 guests to the largest Pride month celebration ever hosted at the White House.

“Happy Pride Month,” the president said from a stage on the South Lawn. “Happy Pride year,” he added, “happy Pride life.”

The Biden-Harris administration has more openly-LGBTQ people working at every level of government than ever before, Biden noted, and “we’re doing everything we can to advance equality for the LGBTQ community.”

“As commander-in-chief, I was proud to reverse the ban on transgender Americans serving in the United States military. I signed historic executive orders extending civil rights protections for housing, employment, health care, education and the justice system.”

“We’re combatting the dangerous and cruel practice of conversation therapy and launching a new national strategy to end the HIV epidemic by 2030, working with communities to treat and contain the mpox outbreak, and ending the disgraceful practice of banning gay and bisexual men from donating blood.”

Biden said the administration is making LGBTQ equality around the world a top priority, such as by reviewing “our engagement with Uganda following its anti-gay law, the most extreme in the world.”

“Last December, we felt such pride here on the South Lawn when I signed the historic Respect for Marriage Act, which protects the marriages of same-sex and interracial couples.”

Despite this progress, the president said, “real challenges still remain.” For instance, he said, “When a person can be married in the morning and thrown out of the restaurant for being gay in the afternoon, something is still very wrong in America. That’s why the Congress must pass and send me the Equality Act.”

“Joining us today are survivors of Club Q and Pulse,” Biden said, shootings that highlight the importance of implementing the provisions of the bipartisan gun bill passed last year. He added that work must continue with banning assault weapons.

“With families across the country facing excruciating decisions to relocate to a different state to protect their child from dangerous anti LGBTQ laws, we have to act,” Biden said. “We have to act as a nation. We need to push back against the hundreds of callous and cynical bills and laws introduced in states targeting transgender children, terrifying families and criminalizing doctors and nurses.”

“These bills and laws attack the most basic values we have as Americans that’s not hyperbole,” said the president. “It’s a fact.”

“I recognize that for a lot of folks across the country, maybe it’s not you, your kid, your family member going through whatever a transgender child and their family is going through,” Biden said.

“But I think we can all agree,” he said, “if it were you, you’d want the space to figure it out with your family and doctor.”

“So today, I want to send a message to the entire community especially to transgender children. You aren’t alone. You are heard. You are understood … your president, my entire administration has your back!”

“Two days ago, I announced a series of new initiatives we’re taking to protect the LGBTQ community,” Biden said. “First, ensuring your physical safety. Whether you’re organizing a Pride parade, running a small business or just trying to focus at school, you shouldn’t have to deal with bomb threats, harassment, and violent attacks.”

“That’s why the Department of Homeland Security with the support of the Department of Justice and Department Health and Human Services is launching a safety partnership that’s gonna provide critical training and support to the community — dedicated resources to better protect festivals, marches, community centers and businesses.”

Second, said the president. “We’re addressing how the growing threat that book bans violate civil rights law when they target LGBTQ students or students of color and create hostile classroom environments.”

“Third, we’re investing in the future of LGBTQ kids. Last year we launched a nationwide crisis hotline for LGBTQ youth who are feeling isolated and overwhelmed,” said Biden, who also noted initiatives focused on mental health and combatting homelessness among LGBTQ youth.

“You set the example for the nation and quite frankly for the world,” Biden said. “You know, we all move forward when we’re together with your joy, your pride, lighting the way.”

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White House debuts new actions to protect the LGBTQ community

The administration is coordinating efforts across different federal agencies

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The White House was lit in rainbow colors following the Respect for Marriage Act signing ceremony (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

White House Domestic Policy Advisor Neera Tanden, during a call with reporters on Wednesday, announced a slate of new actions the administration will undertake to better protect the LGBTQ community.

These will focus on three major areas, she said: safety and security, issues for LGBTQ youth like mental health and housing insecurity, and combatting book bans.

President Joe Biden has “already developed a historic record of supporting the LGBTQ community,” Tanden said, noting that he and First Lady Dr. Jill Biden are also prepared to “host the largest Pride celebration in White House history” on Thursday evening.

At the same time, she said, LGBTQ Americans are now experiencing “a whole range of attacks” from “hateful, un-American legislation” to “a disturbing surge in violent threats.”

Administered by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in partnership with the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the administration’s “community safety partnership” will “work hand in hand with LGBTQ community organizations” to provide safety training and resources, Tanden said.

For example, she said, “and it’s so unfortunate to have to say this,” but the partnership will help LGBTQ community centers “prepare for the worst” – including “bomb threats, active shooters, and cybersecurity threats – while also protecting “healthcare providers who serve the community by working with doctors and medical associations.”

Actions for LGBTQ kids that Tanden previewed on Wednesday include HHS’s development of a behavioral health care advisory for transgender and gender diverse youth, to help ensure young people are given the best evidence-based care.

On Thursday, she said, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development will launch federal initiatives to combat LGBTQ youth homelessness and new regulations to “protect LGBTQ kids in foster care.”

Finally, Tanden said, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights “will appoint a new coordinator” to combat book bans, which disproportionately target, for exclusion, materials with LGBTQ characters or themes, or communities of color.

DoE’s coordinator will “offer trainings and resources to schools to help them understand that students have a right to learn free from discrimination, and that book bands may violate federal civil rights laws if they create a hostile environment for students,” Tanden said.

A senior administration official, responding to a question from the Washington Blade following Tanden’s remarks, elaborated on the scope of the community safety partnership.

Community organizations, they said, will include “health clinics, community centers, and organizations that are planning Pride celebrations, but it also includes small businesses like restaurants and bars that have been targeted because they’re run by LGBTQI+ Americans or because they host events that support that community.”

“We’ll be encouraging and reaching out directly to organizations that have been impacted by these violent threats to help make sure that they have the training and the resources they need to stay safe,” the official said.

They added that DHS and DoJ, in anticipation of the possibility that threats will increase in June, “have both been working proactively over many months leading up to Pride to communicate with state and local law enforcement about the threats that the community may face and to help local pride organizers get access to any federal safety resources they may need to help keep the community safe.”

Asked to explain how HHS’s healthcare focused initiatives will be reconciled with restrictions targeting medical interventions for trans youth in conservative states, the official noted ongoing efforts to fight back – including by federal rulemaking and litigated challenges of policies that violate Americans’ rights.

When it comes to the actions previewed by Tanden, the official said, “Almost half of LGBTQI+ youth say they seriously considered committing suicide in the past year, and that attacks on their rights have made their mental health worse. That’s a serious crisis that we want to take on and this advisory will help.”

Additionally, they said, “HHS is announcing that they’re going to release new guidance to states to help them use federal funds to offer dedicated mental health services to the LGBTQI+ community,” while “the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, or SAMSA, is releasing $1.7 million in new federal funding for programs that support the health and mental health of LGBTQI+ youth by investing in programs that are focused on family affirmation.”

Responding to other questions about anti-LGBTQ legislation and the rising transphobic and anti-LGBTQ sentiment in America, the official offered some insight into the Biden-Harris administration’s positions on these matters more broadly.

“Part of our role here is to lift up the stories of transgender kids and their families to help the American people understand what is happening to families who, as the President says aren’t hurting anyone but are being hurt by these laws,” said the official.

“These aren’t just attacks on the rights of LGBTQI+{ Americans, they are part and parcel of a coordinated attack on our democracy,” they said. “We’re not just talking about laws that target transgender kids. These are really laws that get at the heart of our basic freedoms and values: the right to free expression, the right to make decisions about your own body, the right to parent and raise your children.”

The official added, “Opponents of LGBTQI+ Americans are leading a pretty significant campaign of disinformation,” which have included “the same types of hateful lies and stereotypes that have been used against our community really for decades and for generations.”

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Biden’s Pride month proclamation: ‘Our nation faces another inflection point’

States across the country have passed anti-LGBTQ laws

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The White House was lit in rainbow colors following the Respect for Marriage Act signing in December 2022. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Just as the 1969 Stonewall riots marked a transformational time for LGBTQ civil rights in America, the country now faces another critical inflection point, President Joe Biden said in the White House’s proclamation Wednesday honoring Pride month.

This moment is precipitated by the wave of hateful anti-LGBTQ legislation moving through state and local legislatures across the country and amid the escalating violence and threats of violence against the community, the statement notes:

“In 2023 alone, state and local legislatures have already introduced over 600 hateful laws targeting the LGBTQI+ community. Books about LGBTQI+ people are being banned from libraries. Transgender youth in over a dozen states have had their medically necessary health care banned. Homophobic and transphobic vitriol spewed online has spilled over into real life, as armed hate groups intimidate people at Pride marches and drag performances, and threaten doctors’ offices and children’s hospitals that offer care to the LGBTQI+ community. Our hearts are heavy with grief for the loved ones we have lost to anti-LGBTQI+ violence.”

Biden drew parallels between the “LGBTQI+ protestors” who “bravely stood their ground” against the law enforcement dispatched to arrest them more than 50 years ago and the youth organizers leading walkouts in response to discriminatory education laws, along with the “young people and their parents [who] are demonstrating unimaginable courage by testifying in state capitols in defense of their basic rights.”

The statement reaffirms the Biden-Harris administration’s commitment to standing “proudly with the LGBTQI+ community in the enduring struggle for freedom, justice and equality,” chronicling some of the major steps the administration has taken on this front.

Biden highlighted his issuance, on his first day in office, of an executive order prohibiting anti-LGBTQ discrimination, along with his signage last year of the Respect for Marriage Act, which codified protects for the rights of same-sex couples that might otherwise be jeopardized by the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative supermajority.

The statement then noted the administration’s moves to protect LGBTQ youth by ordering federal agencies to: Combat conversion therapy, “end the crisis of homelessness among LGBTQI+ youth and adults,” and address anti-LGBTQ discrimination in foster care.

Meanwhile, Biden said, the Justice Department is fighting against discriminatory laws targeting transgender youth, while the U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services have drafted rules that would better protect anti-LGBTQ discrimination “in healthcare, at school and in sports” and the White House is developing ways to combat online harassment and abuse that “disproportionately target LGBTQ people.”

Finally, the White House noted: Its rollout last year of the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline for LGBTQ youth, who can now reach specially trained counselors by dialing 988 and then three; the administration’s appointment of historic numbers of LGBTQ appointees at all levels of the federal government; and its repeal of bans preventing trans people from serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.

From passing federal nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ Americans via the Equality Act to addressing “the crisis of violence against transgender women and girls of color,” Biden acknowledged the work that lies ahead.

“This month and every month,” his proclamation concludes, “let us celebrate the pride that powers the movement for LGBTQI+ rights and commit to doing our part to help realize the promise of America, for all Americans.”

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